This is the first chapter of my short story, “Life at the Speed of Time,” which is featured in the anthology Cracks in the Tapestry, which was released last month. It’s the first anthology I’ve been a part of, and this story was a lot of fun to write. Enjoy!
The steering wheel shaking in my hands is actually soothing.
It distracts me from the bead of sweat running down the right side of my face. It gives me a reprieve from the oppressive heat in the cockpit, a stifling one hundred and forty degrees according to a thermometer placed on my seat. The cooling unit attached to my helmet gave out back on lap 120, not ideal for a muggy day in central Florida. I can barely make out my crew chief or spotter when they talk into my ear, the roar of my engine drowning them out.
But all things considered, I’m having a good race. Daytona has never been my favorite race track; I don’t care for this style of racing. I’m surrounded by forty of my closest enemies, our beasts of speed inches apart as we barrel along the banking so fast we should be soaring into the air. This is all I’ve known my entire life, but even if I’m more comfortable at a half-mile bullring, this place is the pinnacle of stock car racing.
And I’ve led laps today. The car’s fast. But a bad pit stop thirty laps ago has me stuck in 30th. I have nowhere to run. I’m stuck in the middle of the pack, with cars on either side of me. If one of us sneezes, or someone gets an itchy arm, calamity is sure to follow.
The field barrels into the first turn. To the fans, we’re little more than a blur of color. But with my competitors going as fast as me, I can read every sponsor logo on their quarter panels. Freddy Bocelli, who wrecked me going for the win at Bristol last season, is to my outside. He has a new team this year, but the way his left front tire twitches tells me he still hasn’t learned how to hold a pretty wheel.
To my inside is Stan Gordon. No relation and not even half the talent of the Gordon you’ve actually heard of. He’s only in that car because he has a sponsor – his father’s chain of hardware stores.
Don’t get me started.
The banking gives way and we’re screaming down the backstretch. Only a concrete wall with energy-absorbing protection, a catchfence, and a row of billboards separate us from the airport behind the track.
Three wide middle. Three wide middle.
My spotter, Earl Webber. He’s probably staring at my car through binoculars from his perch above the press box on the frontstretch. I can only see but so much in this car: out the windshield and through my rearview mirror. Earl helps me navigate through trouble and tells me what’s going on around me. His information is paramount, especially here where the drivers can’t get away from each other.
As soon as the words leave Earl’s mouth, I jerk the steering wheel to the right. My momentum carries me past Stan, then I find myself passing two more cars. Finally, I’m getting somewhere. Earl’s in my ear again, but I’m not listening as the banking tilts me going into the third turn. Several rows ahead, I see a car jump out of line on the high side, making it three-wide.
No one goes with him, and he loses several positions.
Ten laps to go.
I curse under my breath. Ten laps?! I thought I had more time.
I turn left. The tires squeal in protest, but the car does what I need it to. Coming off the fourth turn, coming back to the start-finish line, I’ve picked up three more spots. I can feel the air propelling my car forward. I can’t see the air, but I can definitely feel it.
But I do see a car in the infield grass, on its roof and on fire. I blink and shake my head. The vision’s gone.
I pass another car going into the first turn, but I have to jerk the wheel to the right when my rear tires lose traction. If I hadn’t caught it, I’d have wrecked at least five or six cars. That’s how close together we are. I catch my breath by the time we’re on the backstretch again; at this late stage, it feels like we’re taking forever to race along this two and a half-mile track.
The image of the burning car returns. But this time, I hear the crunch of warped sheet metal. Someone screams. The sky above is a ghastly mix of coal black and burnt orange.
But as I barrel into Turn 3, the image is gone.
You okay in there, Randy?
Before I can answer Scott, my crew chief, Earl’s yelling in my ear.
The leaders are wrecking on the frontstretch!
Another scream startles me. I cry out and have to corral the car as it swerves back and forth. No one hits me, and I scrub off enough speed that I’m lingering hundreds of feet behind the pack. The scream returns, louder, and when I squeeze my eyes shut, the car on fire explodes. The driver was still inside.
I know because that’s when the screaming stops.
Other than Earl’s voice, everything is silent. My car comes to a complete stop by the entrance to pit road. My grip on the steering wheel is so tight my hands start to cramp.
Then I open my eyes.
Nearly half the field is wrecked in the curve along the frontstretch, torn sheet metal and roll cages strewn about the asphalt and infield grass. Safety vehicles have already begun approaching the carnage, and some of the drivers have exited their cars after lowering the black netting over the drivers-side window.
Most of the safety crews are heading for the infield grass. When I see why, my heart stops and my stomach drops. In the grass, there is a car, upside down and on fire. The red No. 54 car, piloted this season by hotshot rookie Chase Flanigan.
Randy, you alright?
I yank the cords from my helmet – both the cooling unit that no longer works and the radio. Gritting my teeth, my heartbeat far quicker than it had been when I was going 200 miles an hour, I pull off my helmet, and the neck restraint device attached to it, and head sock underneath. I dislodge the steering wheel from its column, tear down my window net. The six-point harness trapping me in my cocoon of a seat is the next to go before I pull myself out of the car and run toward the wreckage.
No one sees me. The safety crews and ambulances are too busy tending to the wrecked.
Stock car racing is as safe as it’s ever been. To the point where we sometimes foolishly think we’re invincible. Never mind the guy who at this track a couple years ago hit a concrete wall so hard he snapped both of his legs. Or the fact that our most beloved driver had to hang it up, in part, because of head injuries.
But no one’s died in almost twenty years, so…
The fire’s grown by the time I reach the grass. The car’s on-board extinguishing unit must have broken. I push my way through three safety workers, unable to shake the déjà vu. I gulp down air as fast as I can, willing myself not to drop to my knees and hurl. I’ll be sick later. Right now, I have to get Chase out of that car.
I ignore the safety worker. Once I’m within feet of Chase’s car, the heat pushes back against me like a wall. I cringe and push through it as best I can, shielding my eyes from the brightness. The smoke is black as night pouring into the sky, and I drop to my knees by the passenger’s side. Peering into the window, I see Chase’s eyes wide as they can go through the visor of his helmet. He stares right at me, tugging on his belts. We’re always told to pull those belts a little bit tighter before the green flag waves; right now, Chase needs them to loosen.
Springing back to my feet, I run across to the driver’s side. One member of the safety crew grabs me by the shoulder. I shake him off and point at the fire. “Put that out!”
No… no no no no no!
Not even five minutes ago, I had seen this exact scene unfold. And the first time Chase screams, I freeze. It’s the exact sound I’d heard just moments before the wreck happened. I still don’t know how it started. I imagine TV will be playing the incident over and over again on a loop, and non-racing media will even pick up on it. Train wreck spectacle, nothing more.
But Chase needs to get out of the car before the worst happens.
Reaching in, I tug with all the strength I’ve got. But those belts won’t budge. Cursing under my breath, I turn my head to cough. The smoke is so bad my eyes are watering. I gag and nearly lose my lunch. But a deep breath keeps me from blowing chunks all over the rookie, and I reach in again with both hands.
Still, the belts won’t move.
“Help!” he screams.
Part of me wants to be sarcastic in return, but the kid’s freaked. As he should be. His car’s on fire and he’s stuck in it. The plume of smoke has grown to the point where the wind gust is carrying it into the grandstands. Fans are fleeing, covering their faces as they seek refuge. Some fans have stuck around, either to get photos or to see Chase emerge from the car.
But if I can’t those belts off…
Three safety workers grab me by the shoulders and pull me away.
“No!” I try to free myself, but a fourth worker joins the fray. “I have to help!”
“There’s nothing you can do!” one worker, his firesuit reading Jenkins, shouts. “The car’s gonna blow at any minute!”
I whirl around in anger. “So you’re just gonna leave him there?!”
Jenkins points, and over my shoulder, I see two men in fireman gear drop to their knees. One reaches in, and after what feels like an eternity, both he and the other fireman begin the process of extracting Chase from the vehicle. What’s left of the crowd roars in excitement when Chase’s head emerges from the window, but his shoulders get caught on the damn belts.
Those six-point harnesses are great when you’re in the car. In a situation like this… my stomach falls again.
The four crewmen who had pulled me from Chase’s car grab me and yank me back again. We retreat to pit road and leap over the wall separating the crews from their pit stalls, and I don’t know why. I trip over the wall and grunt, scraping my hands on the pavement. When I turn around to yell at the crewmen, I don’t see them. Because they ducked.
Then Chase’s car explodes.
He had only been halfway extracted. Both he and the two firemen trying to rescue him are engulfed in the fireball. Fans scream in horror. Fellow drivers fall to their knees on the track.
And I throw up all over a set of unused Goodyears.
Like what you read? Check out the rest by picking up your copy of Cracks in the Tapestry, available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions! The anthology also features work from Leslie Conzatti, Arthur David, C. Scott Davis, Benjamin D. Pegg, R. Eric Smith, and Lorna Woulfe.
About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.